Friday, October 10, 2014

"A Politicized Aesthetic" (

Are we in a culture war? If so, then under what conditions can we claim victory? James Matthew Wilson argues in the first part of his "Treasonous Clerk" essay that the way in which the concept of a "culture war" has developed favors a situation in which conservatives make very little positive contribution, confining themselves to criticism (often superficial criticism) of the culture industry. If we draw a line across culture according to left/right political sensibilities, then conservatism paints itself into the corner of accepting only a very limited traditionalist aesthetic, while being unable to produce anything worthy of the tradition.
In brief, this is a politicized aesthetic: the reverence and deference conservatives naturally and rightly feel for inherited institutions and the legacies and traditions of their forefathers gets applied—not thoughtlessly but secondarily—to works that have accrued a handful of characteristics. First, their content is immediately comprehensible in terms of ethics; while Homer's is not a bald didacticism, one must truly be numb not to experience a kind of moral fear and awe when confronted with a full vision of the noble virtues of Achilles. I would not argue that conservatives tend to admire only artworks with patent ethical content, as if they could skip over questions of beauty or artistic achievement entirely in the rush to celebrate the stirring moral. Rather, as I shall elaborate, conservatives tend to venerate only one form of moral beauty.  
Second, much literature before the age of the novel gave absolute primacy to both public life and public virtues. As such, the classical authors remain keenly attractive to those already by nature inclined to attend to the explicit prescriptions of public and social life to the neglect of the obscure subtleties of the private sphere. If a work is Christian, conservatives seem to appreciate it more if it is "religious" than theological; if I may risk obscurity, they consistently prefer the allegorical to the ontological. Sir Walter Scott's romances are but scarcely novels in the modern sense, but are prose narratives that anticipate the techniques of the novel while retaining many conventions of classical epic and history. And, of course, Orwell's fictions were intended neither to be conservative nor to be novels at all. That his sensibility tended to exploit the genres of the fable and dystopian fantasy suggests that it was in a key way alienated from an age that loved the interiority of the novel—and his alienation is something in which his conservative readers share. They appreciate such works not merely because they are ethical in content, but also because they are concerned with external or social forms in the same way that political theory or the other social sciences generally are. 
Third, in their own right and by dint of venerability, the kinds of works conservatives tend to cherish are, in several senses, Great Books. That is, they have in themselves and in their dusty surfaces attributes of the noble or great. Here lies, I think, the decisive feature of the conservative politicized aesthetic: a somewhat isolated sensitivity to only that kind of beauty that merges with what the classical tradition called the sublime, and which we might more helpfully call the noble or grand.
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